I have one word to sum up the Turnbull government’s 2017-18 budget, and that word is ‘pragmatic’. This is a budget that is aimed at this chamber—aimed at the Senate, especially the crossbench. They have finally buried the 2014 Abbott-Hockey horror budget, and their so-called zombie bills—although cynics know that zombies have a habit of rising again from the grave, like the horror movie. We should have seen this coming when financial minister Cormann repeatedly said: ‘Park, park,’ to controversial segments when negotiating passage of the recent omnibus bill. It is more proof that, in this 45th Parliament, Senator Cormann and Prime Minister Turnbull are real pragmatists. And that is good. It is not the Abbott-Credlin ‘my way or the highway’—that approach to the crossbenchers. This is not wasting-your-time, ideological, play-to-your-base material. These are bills that seem genuine, practical and, in the case of Gonski mark II, fair and justifiable. I have heard so many commentators, including the Greens leader and Labor MPs, describing this at times as a Labor budget or a Labor-lite budget. So I guess I should now presume that the opposition will be voting for all of it.
Honourable senators interjecting—
Senator HINCH: I will deal with some of the other issues in a minute. I mentioned Gonski, so I will get education out of the way first.
I have admitted on radio and television in the past—before I jumped the shark—that I am personally opposed to taxpayers funding any private schools, Catholic or otherwise. My belief in the separation of church and state extends to many areas. The taxpayer should not be funding proselytising school chaplains either. But that is another issue. I sent my stepson to a private school, Wesley College, and he got a great education. I went to a state school, primary and secondary, and I thought I got a good one, too. But these are personal views, not party views. Anyway, I will concede: taking funding away from private schools is never going to happen, so it is not worth wasting any time debating it.
It is not the only reason I had reservation about Gonski mark I. The money for Labor’s Gonski was never there. That is why I thought it was ludicrous for them to be bleating about Gonski II slashing $22 billion. You cannot cut money that was never there. So I will support the reborn Gonski. I will withhold judgement on the university issues until I am better briefed, but, instinctively, I think the new $42,000 kick-in for the repayment of HECS debts seems savagely low, especially in this day and age when rents, electricity and other living expenses are so high.
Right now, I am more interested in a claim by Senator Birmingham which has not received much mainstream media. He was quoted the other day as saying that the government was writing off—or, even worse, had written off—more than $50 billion in HECS debts. I am told tonight by the government that the write-off figure was closer to $12 billion. But even $12 billion smackers! My God, wouldn’t Sco-Mo love to get his hands on some of that. I have not been able to find out yet why this is so—as Julius Sumner Miller would put it. All I have been told so far is some lame rubbish about, ‘Oh, some people moved overseas to live.’ Twelve billion bucks worth?
While we are on the subject of money, as I said on TV last night the bigger story about the banks in budget week was not the surprise imposition of a supertax but the leak which saw $14 billion ripped off major bank shares by short sellers in the know. I have written to the Federal Police, asking them to investigate what looks to me like a serious criminal case of insider trading. At first, I thought there must have been a leak from the lock-up. But I have since discovered there was a rumour sniffed by Sky News on Monday night and the short sellers hit the exchange Tuesday morning. The banks had been raided for $14 billion by 10.30 am—three hours before the lock-up even started.
As I said in my letter to AFP Commissioner Colvin, this is a classic criminal case of insider trading. It could be the biggest case of insider trading in Australian history. It makes Steve Vizard’s insider trading sound like Monopoly money. I contacted the feds because they can easily find out who sold short on Tuesday. I asked them also to see if those sellers or their families had any connection with Capital Hill. Did it involve a federal employee or employees, a ministerial staff or staffers, or even a politician or a politician’s staff?
I am now, disturbingly, getting unconfirmed reports that some banks were briefed some time ago about the modelling of a levy, but, to be fair, there was no hint that it would actually be in the budget. Then, a wink is as good as a nod, as they say. Worse still, I am hearing today that some stockbrokers heard of it from their investors early Tuesday morning, instructing them to dump the major banks’ stocks. ASIC is now getting involved, too, so this issue still has long legs.
There was some good news for pensioners in this budget. There was good news for 92,000 pensioners in getting their concession cards restored and, especially, for pensioners wanting to downsize their homes but who have been scared of being penalised. I have been pushing this pension protection idea here in Canberra and on 3AW with Neil Mitchell. Now, I know that under the new budget—we all know—that homeowners who downsize will be permitted to each put $300,000 into their super funds and maintain their pension status. I am told that could free up 50,000 family sized homes for younger homebuyers or families wanting to trade up to bigger houses. That and other things, like salary sacrificing, will not solve the housing crisis, but it is something.
Big ticks too for the $350 million for Defence returned servicemen. That includes, of course, $130 million for survivors of the British nuclear tests at places like Maralinga. On that, you have too ask: what took them so long? Whenever returned servicemen are mentioned these days, I cannot get one awful statistic out of my mind: more than 30 of them have committed suicide this year. The last one I heard about was on Anzac Day. On the surface, I applaud the $33 million earmarked for the establishment of a Commonwealth redress scheme for survivors of institutionalised sex abuse, as documented in heartbreaking fashion at the royal commission, but I will suspend judgement on this one because I am already, sadly, seeing signs that the government is going soft on early royal commission recommendations, like the proposed maximum payment of $200,000.
There is another fund that deserves a mention: the new Skilling Australians Fund. Over four years, $1.5 billion will be allocated for apprentices and trainees, and the government claims that could support 300,000 young people training to enter the workforce.
One embarrassing thing for the government was the scant mention of two controversial words: negative gearing. It is true: people with negatively geared property will no longer be allowed to claim an annual trip to inspect the property as a tax deduction, and depreciation on the washing machine I think has also been disallowed. I support negative gearing. I have declared in my pecuniary interest register that I have one heavily mortgaged negatively geared apartment, but I am open to legislation to limit the number of properties, residential or commercial, that a person can negatively gear. I am increasingly being convinced of a limit of two or three such properties. It could help first-time buyers who are being swamped by investors, local and foreign, at every weekend auction.
Also on the issue of house prices, we should be pressuring state governments to scrap stamp duty. That, along with things like payroll tax, was meant to go when the Howard government brought in the GST. Stamp duty is a savage tax. As I have said before, you do not even get a bloody stamp! Still on housing—and permit me to be parochial for a minute—in the budget, and I have to applaud this, the government announced that it will release 127 hectares of Defence department land in Victoria which will accommodate 6,000 new houses, and that is great. Some would say that the fact that it is in Bill Shorten’s electorate is even better. Still being parochial, the $500 million for Victoria’s regional passenger rail is very good news, as is the $100 million for the Geelong Line upgrade. The Melbourne-Brisbane Inland Rail project was a boomer, mainly for freight, but I wonder: what does that mean for the much vaunted Melbourne-Brisbane bullet train? I am probably dreaming to think that the $30 million from the federal government to help build a city-to-Tullamarine rail line will convince the Andrews government to embrace the project. In my view, it is a scandal that a major metropolis, the world’s most livable city, does not have a city-to-airport rail link.
Before the budget, I tweeted a good-news link. It was about living organ donors and recipients—an issue close to my heart, literally. It was confirmed on Tuesday night. It is a plan I have been pushing for more than three years. It involves payment to living organ donors, especially for kidneys. Sometimes a compatible mother or father cannot donate a kidney to a family member because, in these tight times, neither of them can afford the three or four months off work to recuperate, so the government is now providing $4.1 million for donors’ out-of-pocket expenses. It is not enough, but it is a good start. When I first raised this issue a few years ago, The Sunday Telegraph in Sydney accused me of organ trading or organ selling. Yeah, right! But this is a good excuse to segue to my plea for a million more Australians to join the organ and tissue donor register and to remind people of my campaign for the government to legislate and create a living will so that, if you are on the organ donor register, your wish to be an organ donor will be honoured. I call it ‘opt in plus’. Right now, there are more than six million Australians either registered or intending to give the gift of life, but what many people do not know is that more than 40 per cent of people registered as donors will not have their wish granted because, in their grief, their families, their loved ones, will overrule their wishes, and I believe that is wrong. I understand what grief can do, but it is your body and if in life you want to be an organ donor then that wish should be honoured and protected in death.
Still briefly on health and the Medicare levy increase: the NDIS is one of the most important health and welfare advancements in Australian history. The Medicare levy will guarantee that the NDIS will be fully funded in the decades ahead. Disabled Australians and their carers need this not tomorrow but yesterday, and now it will be done. From me—and I hope from all Australians—it gets a big tick of approval.
Finally, I hope it is not an omen or a sign that the 2017-18 Turnbull government budget is about to go arse-up that the printed copies of Treasurer Morrison’s speech on Tuesday night that were distributed to senators and members in the other place and dignitaries had inside the cover the speech upside down. I know it is a topsy-turvy world that we live in, but that is ridiculous. I will leave you with a final word about the budget: pragmatic.
Chamber Senate on 11/05/2017 Item BUDGET – Statement and Documents Speaker :Hinch, Sen Derryn